The Gearhart elk are an Internet hit.

A 10-minute video, titled "Elk Love the Oregon Coast, Too!" and created by Newport's Digital Video Designs, was uploaded to YouTube on March 1 and, at press time, had received nearly 27,000 views.

Gearhart Mayor Dianne Widdop had the video loaded up on her iPad when Matt Brown, the head professional at the Highlands Golf Course, swung by City Hall recently to discuss a less adorable elk effect: the herd's impact on the golf course.

Just the night before, the elk had caused some damage on one of Highlands' greens.

"They were sleeping on one of our holes, or close to one of our holes, and they had trampled one of our greens and then they were all sleeping in an open area close by," Brown said.

Elk damage to the golf course has been a common occurrence in the past few years as the herd has grown in size.

"The issue is, you can handle 20," said Forrest Goodling, superintendent of Gearhart Golf Links, who joined Brown to discuss the situation with Widdop and City Administrator Chad Sweet. "You can't handle 78. That's the whole thing. ... Their habits have changed from migratory to residential."

Goodling and Brown stopped by City Hall to ask for the City Council's assistance in finding a solution to the "elk problem." The two were working on drafting a letter that the council could sign off on.

"If we're going to write a letter to these folks, it needs to be a letter calling for action, not calling for more discussion," Brown said. "Because we already know the problem. We know that there needs to be a population control. ... We'd love to see them relocated."

For Brown, controlling the size of the elk herd is more than just a dilemma for Gearhart Golf Links and the Highlands.

"It's not just the golf courses' problem," Brown said. "It's the city's problem."

Sweet cautioned Brown about presuming that all of Gearhart views the elk population as a problem in need of a solution.

"I can't sit here and tell you what the community wants," Sweet said. "I can definitely tell you what a couple golf course folks want. (But) the fire chief and the chief of police, both of them are looking at this like we've got a people problem, not an elk problem."

Gearhart Police Chief Jeff Bowman wasn't shy about his views on the relationship between the people of Gearhart and the elk.

"If you can get them all relocated ... be my guest, but everybody wants to say that it's an elk problem, and it's not an elk problem," Bowman said. "We people created this situation. ... Do whatever you'd like to do, but don't ask everybody to buy into it because there's a lot of us that like the elk."

The elk are drawn to the golf courses because of their verdant, well-fertilized grass, and keeping the elk off the grass entirely is generally a losing battle, according to Herman Biederbeck, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's wildlife biologist for the North Coast district.

"The bottom line is, short of building an elk-proof fence, it's impossible to keep the elk off of places like golf courses," Biederbeck said in January, when the large herd of elk began to draw attention. "How you deal with elk on the golf courses really determines how much damage there is. When people see elk on the golf course and they slowly move them off, the damage to the golf course tends to be minimized."

Despite golf course employees' efforts to responsibly herd elk off the courses, the elk still cause considerable damage: Goodling estimated that Gearhart Golf Links spent $25,000 repairing greens last year.

"If we do gently herd them off, we always try to go off into the dunes whenever we can," Brown said. "But when they do go across the street or into the Reserve, I feel just as bad if they were to go over and damage someone else's yard as if they were to come and damage our greens. Forrest feels the same way. This is a community thing."

How to handle the increased herd size of these displaced elk, who have seen their old North Coast grazing ground developed and disrupted, has been a point of debate in recent weeks.

Late last month, the city of Warrenton began discussing the possibility of altering city ordinances to allow for controlled elk hunting to cull the herd.

Sweet and Widdop were adamant that Warrenton's approach wouldn't fly in Gearhart.

"We just don't have the land to be able to do that," Sweet said, noting that Warrenton was a much bigger city in terms of land mass.

"In no way would I ever sign a letter saying there would be increased hunting," Widdop said. "But if they could be relocated at a cost that could be afforded, that's wonderful--I'd love to see it."

After an hour-long discussion, Brown, Goodling, Sweet and Widdop agreed: they would craft a letter for the City Council's signature that would ultimately ask ODFW for an estimate detailing the logistics and cost of relocating approximately 75 percent of the elk herd.

Gearhart's "elk problem" is emblematic of the continual tension between the natural and the man-made, between the native plants and animals and the nonnative plants and humans.

"I'm all in favor of relocating. If you want to take 75 percent of the herd, I don't have an issue with that," Bowman said. "However, just as the other herds are joining within a couple of years, that herd can continue to grow bigger if we don't address people issues.

"If we are a feed lot, and this is where they want to come, one generation after the next generation after the next," Bowman said. "They're going to hang out here and they're going to stay."

This story originally appeared in Seaside Signal.


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